Characterizing fire-on-fire interactions in three large wilderness areas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


The interaction of fires, where one fire burns into another recently burned area, is receiving increased attention from scientists and land managers wishing to describe the role of fire scars in affecting landscape pattern and future fire spread. Here, we quantify fire-on-fire interactions in terms of frequency, size, and time-since-previous fire (TSPF) in three large wilderness areas in Montana and Idaho, USA, from 1984 to present, using spatially consistent large fire perimeter data from the Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity (MTBS) dataset. The analysis is supplemented with less consistent fire perimeter data from a regional fire atlas in order to examine the potential role played by smaller fires in fire-on-fire interactions. We compare current rates of burning to existing estimates using the natural fire rotation (NFR) to determine whether recent fire activity falls within established historical ranges. We also compare actual fires to randomly located fires to establish whether the frequency and size of re-burns differ by chance. Finally, we systematically classify shared fire edges as fire-stopping or breached to quantify the effect of previous fires on subsequent fire spread. In total, more than half of the Frank Church, one-quarter of the Bob Marshall, and fifteen percent of the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness areas have burned since 1984. Area burned within each of the study areas yielded NFRs that are consistent with results derived from fire atlas and tree-ring research studies. The data show that re-burning occurs less frequently than chance in the Frank Church Wilderness Area, perhaps less frequently in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, and the same as chance in the Selway- Bitterroot Wilderness Area. In each of the study areas, the total amount of edge at which a fire met another fire was less than three percent of the total available perimeter. However, ~80 % of the total edge encountered was breached, resulting in fire spreading onto previously burned landscapes and re-burning at least 40 ha. Year-to-year variability in re-burn occurrence was high, and the size of re-burns was typically small, implying a general resistance to re-burning, but the preponderance of small patches resulting from fire interactions has perhaps significant ecological implications. There was a systematic decrease in the frequency of small to medium sized re-burns (40 ha to 405 ha) as time between fires increased in all three wilderness areas. The frequency of large re-burns increased with time in the Frank Church wilderness area, but this trend was not apparent in the other two wilderness areas. Overall, fire-on-fire interactions show a high degree of complexity, making direct comparisons between the three wilderness areas difficult, but the evidence suggests that large wildfires generally inhibit the spread of subsequent fires, while small fires appear to have little impact on the spread of other fires. The limiting ef fect of large fires on small fires is potentially significant based on the number of cases observed (n = 101).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)82-106
Number of pages25
JournalFire Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2012


  • Bob Marshall Wilderness Area
  • Fire atlas
  • Fire regime
  • Fire-on-fire interaction
  • Frank Church Wilderness Area
  • MTBS
  • Natural fire rotation
  • Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area


Dive into the research topics of 'Characterizing fire-on-fire interactions in three large wilderness areas'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this